Softer method developed for polar bear tagging | Polarjournal
Discovering polar bears in the vastness of the Arctic is a great challenge. But to be able to protect them, you need to know where they are and how far they migrate. Studies have discovered enormous distances in the process. Image: Dr Michael Wenger

Polar bears are true “migratory birds”, as studies have already shown in the past. But in order to obtain such results in the first place and thus do more to protect them, researchers had to equip the animals with satellite transmitters built into collars. In some cases, this led to massive impairment and even death of the animals. But now an international team of experts has developed better and, more importantly, softer methods to attach the transmitters to polar bears.

Attaching the transmitters to the fur instead of the neck is the solution for Professor Gregory Thiemann and a team of experts consisting of researchers from the University of York, Polar Bears International and the company 3M. To do this, the team developed several types of mounts on which to fasten the satellite-based transmitters, and also took their cues from the nature of burr plants. Because these have the ability to stick in the fur of animals for a very long time and not fall off at the next opportunity. The methods have now been awarded first prize by the well-known gadget blog platform Gizmodo at their 2023 science fair.

Pentagon transmitters, Velcro fasteners, clamp rivets in which tufts of fur hair are wedged, and even ear tags with built-in satellite transmitters are the much softer methods of fitting polar bears with transmitters, according to the team of experts. To test the attachment methods developed by 3M technicians and polar bear experts, several teams first worked with zoological gardens. The methods developed by 3M technicians and polar bear experts relied primarily on Velcro technology (“burr in a fur”). As a next step, several teams in the southwestern Hudsonbay region then applied the new mounting methods to polar bears and tested both the mounts and the performance of the transmitters. On the one hand, these were based on Iridium satellites or equipped with simpler GPS transmitters that sent the researchers their data on GIS or Google Maps. This enabled experts like Professor Gregory Thiemann to record exactly the location of the animals. The experts are also satisfied with the strength of the mounting methods so far. The small transmitters could remain in the fur for up to 100 days. Experts are now working on ways to further improve the mounts to ensure that even in extreme conditions, such as prolonged swimming or severe cold, the transmitters will stick to the animal.

According to experts, the method used so far with the collars has several disadvantages at once. On the one hand, the collars can only be used to transmit adult females, as only their head shape and neck are suitable for this. Younger animals grow too fast and could choke on the collars, and the head of male bears practically merges into the neck, so a collar would not stay there. Furthermore, the collars were discredited for harming the animals and even being responsible for the death of some females. But with new mounting methods, researchers can now track males about whose migrations much less is known. “Understanding how polar bears use their environment is extremely important to ensure we can protect these areas in the future,” says Jon Kirschhoffer, the director for conservation technologies at Polar Bears International, for example. And Gregory Thiemann, who has studied polar bears and the effects of ice loss for years, also says, “Understanding the kinds of habitats that they use on the ice and onshore is essential for identifying critical habitat under endangered species legislation.”

Even the potential for conflict with humans could be reduced, according to the experts, if people in Arctic communities knew where a polar bear was. Critics point out, however, that this very knowledge also attracts hunters who use the location either for themselves or for trophy hunting, which is still widespread in Canada. They also point out that it is not only the collars as such that have posed a risk to the polar bears, but also the circumstances surrounding how they must be applied. This still requires helicopters to search for and stunning the animals. Especially the latter, in their opinion, is much worse than the collars and should be replaced by other methods or even abandoned altogether. This shows that the potential for conflict exists not only between polar bears and humans, but also between animal welfare and research, which actually wants to improve their protection. Perhaps the new method will provide a first step also in the direction of settling this conflict.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

More on the topic

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
error: Content is protected !!
Share This